Ronald Ervin McNair was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. It’s the highest accolade given in NASA, awarded by the President of the United States in Congress's name on recommendations from the NASA Administrator. While the Congressional Space Medal of Honor is a civilian award of the United States government, it is approved as a military decoration for display on U.S. military uniforms due to the esteem of the honor. Space Shuttle Challenger: Ten Journeys into the Unknown (Springer Praxis Books / Space Exploration)
Dr. McNair grew up and went to school in Lake City, South Carolina. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics magna cum laude from North Carolina A&T State University in 1971 and a doctor of philosophy in Physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976. He was presented an honorary doctorate of Laws from North Carolina A&T State University in 1978, an honorary doctorate of Science from Morris College in 1980, and an honorary doctorate of science from the University of South
Besides graduating magna cum laude from North Carolina A&T (1971), Dr. McNair was named a Presidential Scholar (1967-1971), a Ford Foundation Fellow (1971-1974), a National Fellowship Fund Fellow (1974-1975), a NATO Fellow (1975); winner of Omega Psi Phi Scholar of the Year Award (1975), Los Angeles Public School Systems Service Commendation (1979), Distinguished Alumni Award (1979), National Society of Black Professional Engineers Distinguished National Scientist Award (1979), Friend of Freedom Award (1981), Who’s Who Among Black Americans (1980), an AAU Karate Gold Medal (1976), five Regional Black Belt Karate Championships, and numerous proclamations and achievement awards.
At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. McNair performed some of the initial development of chemical HF/DF and high-pressure CO lasers. His later experiments and theoretical analysis on the interaction of intense CO2 laser radiation with molecular gases provided new understandings and applications for extremely agitated polyatomic molecules.
In 1975, he studied laser physics with several experts in the field at Ecole Dete Theorique de Physique, Les Houches, France. McNair published numerous papers in the areas of lasers and molecular spectroscopy. He gave countless appearances in the United States and abroad.
After graduation from MIT in 1976, he became a staff physicist with Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California. His projects included the expansion of lasers for isotope separation and photochemistry utilizing non-linear interactions in low-temperature liquids and optical pumping techniques. He directed research on electro-optic laser modulation for satellite-to-satellite space communications, the construction of ultra-fast infrared detectors, ultraviolet atmospheric remote sensing, and the scientific foundations of the martial arts.
McNair was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA in January 1978; he completed a 1-year preparation and assessment period in August 1979, qualifying him for assignment as a mission specialist astronaut on Space Shuttle flight crews.
He first flew as a mission specialist on STS 41-B which launched from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on February 3, 1984. The flight accomplished the proper shuttle deployment of two Hughes 376 communications satellites, and the flight testing of rendezvous sensors and computer programs. The mission established the first flight of the Manned Maneuvering Unit and the first use of the Canadian arm (operated by McNair) to position EVA crewman around Challengers payload bay. Dr. McNair assumed primary responsibility for the German SPAS-01 Satellite, acoustic levitation and chemical separation experiments, the Cinema 360 motion picture filming, five Getaway Specials, and numerous mid-deck experiments. Challenger climaxed in the first landing on the runway at Kennedy Space Center on February 11, 1984. McNair completed a total of 191 hours in space with this flight.
Dr. Ronald McNair is honored by public places named for him:
The crater McNair on the Moon is named in his honor
Ronald McNair Boulevard in Lake City, South Carolina is named in his honor
The U.S. Department of Education offers the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program for students with low income, first generation students, and/or underrepresented students in graduate education for doctorate education.
In Florence, South Carolina, there is a Ronald McNair Math and Science Center at the Francis Marion University
Several K-12 schools across the United States have been named after McNair.
The Naval ROTC building on the campus of Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
The Engineering building at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, NC
The McNair Building at MIT houses the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research
He is survived by his wife Cheryl, and two children Reginald Ervin and Joy Cheray. He was a 5th degree black belt Karate instructor and a performing jazz saxophonist. He also enjoyed running, boxing, football, playing cards, and cooking.
Dr. McNair was assigned as a mission specialist on STS 51-L. Dr. McNair died on January 28, 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded after launch from the Kennedy Space Center, FL. The disaster took the lives of the spacecraft commander, Mr. F.R. Scobee, the pilot, Commander M.J. Smith (USN), mission specialists, Lieutenant Colonel E.S. Onizuka (USAF), and Dr. J.A. Resnik, and two civilian payload specialists, Mr. G.B. Jarvis and Mrs. S. C. McAuliffe, teacher.